Jan Dijkema is already more than halfway through his two-year term as President of the International Skating Union, and awaiting an imminent European Commission ruling on a test case involving two speed skaters that could have critical consequences for the shape of the continent’s future sport.
In the meantime, however, the 73-year-old Dutchman - who took up his position at the ISU Congress in June 2016 in succession to the Italian who had held it for 22 years, Ottavio Cinquanta – is looking forward to one of the simpler pleasures of his post. That is, overseeing the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final.
This season’s finale – which runs from Wednesday to Sunday (December 7-10) in Nagoya - forms the culmination of six weeks of competition in six countries on three continents. And it brings together the very best of the best in a sport which is preparing, once again, to play a key part in the Winter Olympics.
Given the current dispute which looks likely to keep NHL ice hockey players from taking part in the Pyeongchang Games from February 8-25, ISU events such as figure skating, speed skating and short track look likely to be more important than ever for the South Korean organisers.
And the testing competition that is about to start in Japan will take the form of a huge appetiser for that Olympic showing.
The Grand Prix series consists of six events, starting with Rostelecom Cup in Moscow, followed by Skate Canada International in Regina, Audi Cup of China in Beijing and NHK Trophy in Osaka (JPN). The last two events involved are the Internationaux de France de Patinage in Grenoble and Bridgestone Skate America in Lake Placid.
Nathan Chen of the United States tops the standings in the Men’s and is the only competitor to have won his two events – Rostelecom Cup and Bridgestone Skate America.
He will be joined in Nagoya by home skater Shoma Uno, who won Skate Canada International and came second at Internationaux de France de Patinage.
Mikhail Kolyada and Sergei Voronov of Russia booked their ticket to Japan with a gold and a bronze medal each from their two events. Adam Rippon of the United States advances to the Final with two silver medals and Boyang Jin of China has made it with a silver medal at Audi Cup of China and a fourth place finish in Lake Placid.
On the women’s side, the two-times and defending Grand Prix Finlal champion Evgenia Medvedeva and her Russian compatriot Alina Zagitova collected two gold medals each on the circuit and top the table.
Kaetlyn Osmond of Canada earned her spot with a gold from Canada and bronze from France, while Carolina Kostner of Italyand Maria Sotskova of Russia come with two silver medals each. Wakaba Higuchi of Japan qualified with a silver and a bronze medal.
Dijkema, as you would expect, is looking forward to the Grand Prix Final proving a timely booster for his sport.
“The ISU Grand Prix Final is always a great showcase for Figure Skating,” he told insidethegames. “Skaters compete during the ISU Grand Prix of Figure Skating series and only the top six qualify for the Final.
Consequently, only the best skaters will compete this year in Nagoya, and with the PyeongChang 2018 Games just around the corner, there is a lot of interest in this event.
“The ISU Junior Grand Prix of Figure Skating Final also takes place at the same time and has a similar format. The top six Junior Ladies, Men, Pair Skating and Ice Dance couples will compete and it is a snap shot of the potential future stars in the sport.
“This year the Final will take place in Japan, a country where Figure Skating is extremely popular. The venue will be full, which is a real boost for the athletes and the fans.
“It provides a great opportunity for the athletes to prepare for Pyeongchang 2018, to compete in front of such a knowledgeable and enthusiastic crowd.”
The apparent oddity of Dijkema serving for only two years is something he swiftly explained.
“Back in 2014, the ISU Congress voted to extend the previous President’s mandate. So when I presented my candidature in 2016, I knew it would be only for a two-year term. The next elections will take place in 2018 and will return to a four-year term.”
If Dijkema inherited a truncated term of office, he was also taking over a sport whose supporters had felt moved, two years earlier, to collect a well populated petition charging Cinquanta with overseeing: “the most dramatic decline in the history of the event.”
Does Dijkema think that was a fair charge?
“People often forget the past and do not see the bigger picture,” he responded, very diplomatically. “My predecessor has greatly contributed to ISU sports. Let’s not overlook the fact that it is under his leadership that Figure Skating lived its golden years.
“But the world of sport has dramatically changed for all sports. Media and technology have changed very rapidly and sometimes it is not easy to keep up, this is one of the challenges of the modern era.”
During the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games I was present at the press conference where Cinquanta – sitting next to a highly discomfited Jacques Rogge, then International Olympic Committee President - announced that the Canadian pairing of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier would be awarded an additional gold in the pairs skating.
This followed a scandal in which it was alleged that pressure had been put on one of the judges to favour the Russian pair who first claimed gold, Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze.
The allegation was that, if the Russians were favoured, there would be a balancing favour for the French ice dance pair, Marina Anissina and Gwendal Peizerat.
A flustered Cinquanta said in the conference – “I don’t know figure skating so well.” It was an extraordinary statement in an extraordinary situation.
He was – understandably – criticised for that, and for the fact that he had a speed skating background, with the implication that he didn’t fully appreciate the artistry of figure skating.
A series of reforms implemented within the ISU shortly afterwards changed the system of judging to an anonymous function with more specific technical requirements.
The intention was good – but, ironically, the factor of anonymity, introduced to protect the judges and allow them to operate independently, became one that drew increasing criticism.
Problems with the anonymity system came to a head during the Sochi Winter Games of 2014.
A petition with two million signatures calling for an investigation was set up after Russia's Adelina Sotnikova was awarded the ladies individual figure skating title over South Korea's defending champion Kim Yuna, despite many believing Kim should have won.
There were no details given about the scores of the judges, which only added to the criticism because two of those involved in the decision-making process - including judge Alla Shekhovtsova - were Russian.
The ISU Congress at which Dijkema was voted in was also the Congress where, to reported waves of applause, that troubling element of the judging was reversed by an almost unanimous vote.
These crucial words were immediately added to the rules and enacted: “For all figure skating competitions, Championships, Events and Olympic Winter Games, the Judges names and their respective scores will be published.”
Given that Dijkema, like Cinquanta, has a speed skating background, does he, one wonders, feel any concerns about being more widely accepted?
The response: “I have a great motivation to work hard for all ISU disciplines and I am well surrounded. I always stress the importance of teamwork. The ISU Council and Technical Committees are very competent.
“Therefore, I feel confident that the ISU has all the necessary elements to make the right decisions. When you trust your colleagues and their abilities, there is no cause for concern.”
The problem concerning the judging was solved for Dijkema from day one – at least, until next year’s Congress.
Dijkema hinted, however, that there may be yet more changes to this rule next year.
“The ISU Congress meets every two years and it is the only body that can vote on rule changes including the ISU Judging System for Figure Skating,” he said.
“A number of Congress proposals are being prepared for the 2018 ISU Congress, some proposals include changes to the Judging System. However only the Congress can decide if the proposed changes should be implemented. The details of the proposals will be published later in the season.”
Meanwhile, Dijkema has inherited a vexed issue that may yet turn out to be profoundly injurious to the cause not just of his own sport, but of all organised sports within Europe.
The European Commission is due to rule this month on the appeal made against the ISU by Dutch speed skaters Mark Tuitert, who won the 1500m at the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, and Nels Kersholt.
Tuitert and Kersholt have challenged the ISU’s right to sanction competitors for taking part in unauthorised commercial events. If their position is upheld, it could mark a change in the status quo within European sport similar to that which occurred with the 1995 ruling in favour of Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman which secured free movement of players within the EU.
So what is Dijkema’s take on this? And does he agree with the International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach when he said recently: "We are deeply concerned about certain interpretations of the European treaty and EU competition law with regard to sports.
"If everything in Europe is looked at only from a business perspective, the social value of sport is lost - sport is about so much more than business."
Dijkema responded: “Any allegation that the ISU’s rules are somehow anti-competitive appears to be based on a misplaced understanding of the governance structure of sport and the Olympic movement.
“The European Union’s founding Treaty as well as the EU institutions have long recognized the autonomous governance structure of sport as being essential to the protection of the integrity, safety and health in sport.
“These rules benefit sports organisers, sportspersons and spectators. The ISU reiterates that independent organisers are able to organise international tournaments on the ISU international calendar.
“Indeed, the ISU recently authorised an event in the Netherlands to be co-organized by Icederby – the organisation which initiated the complaint through two Dutch Skaters.
“As such, there is no basis for the Commission’s claim that organisers are foreclosed from the market.
“It appears then that the European Commission has failed to take adequate account of the importance of the legitimate objectives pursued by the ISU’s eligibility rules.
“A neoliberal and deregulated approach to sport could destroy the Olympic values underpinning sport.”
While Dijkema awaits the EU ruling, however, he is doing his best to effect the reforms he signalled in his campaign to take up the Presidency.
After being elected, he commented: "You can't make many changes in two years, but you can make it possible for the long term if you work hard." So what, broadly, does he hope to achieve in his time as President?
“Ice Skating is central to my heart, my entire life,” he said. “Gliding over the ice gives a magical feeling and it a fantastic spectacle to watch.
“At ISU we want to further promote and develop the sport worldwide across all levels and disciplines – Figure Skating, Short Track Speed Skating, Speed Skating and Synchronized Skating.
“The ISU is in good shape, but this is not the time to rest on our laurels. As a sociologist, I consider sport as part of society. To succeed in the future, the ISU disciplines must move in tandem with developments in our societies. I hope to innovate and evolve the ISU and its Members.
“Besides running the ongoing business in the best possible way, I have been focused since the elections on three main pillars which are Development, Marketing, Promotion & Digitalization and Good Governance.
“As ISU Council, we are working hard with the entire ISU team to make progress in these fields.
“For example, if we look at Development, we created a new Development Programme and established a new Development Commission. It’s key to educate more coaches and officials worldwide and to support the identification and development of promising young skaters.
“A number of projects have seen the day through the Programme. It includes new types of Projects. For example, we are working on educating coaches and officials through e-learning.
“For the sake of transparency and to stimulate that ISU Members can learn from each other, a new section about the Development Projects will also soon be made available on the ISU website.”
Dijkema’s manifesto highlighted marketing, digitalization and promotion, and also allowing skaters to have more input in decision making. What progress does he feel has been made here?
Regarding marketing, promotion and digitalisation, we are implementing a new fan-centric digital strategy,” he said. “We launched a new website last September, and we are increasing the content for fans and showcasing the athletes and their stories more.
“Furthermore, we are working more closely with our commercial and media partners in order to find new ways to promote ISU sports. In this regard, we are pleased that we have partnered up with Audi for the Audi ISU World Cup Short Track Speed Skating.
“The ISU also organised conferences with its Members to get input from the entire skating family.
“The ISU can be proud of the progress it has made in such a short time in this field. There are many projects in the pipeline. It does take time to see the benefits of some projects, but we are ambitious and confident that the results will be positive.
“During the 2016 ISU Congress, it was agreed that the ISU would create an Athletes Commission which has been in place only since last March. There is still much to do, but we have taken an important step to include the Athletes.”
At the time of his electioin, Dijkema said: "It is very important to have the athletes involved in the decision-making process. On top of that, for the long-term future, to have the athletes involved in the structure of the ISU, it could be a good basis for future officials of the ISU. That they go through a process, learn how decision making is going on; I hope this will be a very good start for new, young people in the future for the ISU."
Has he seen this starting to happen?
“Although the Athletes Commission has only been in place for eight months, they have been included in the Technical Committee decision-making process and they attend ISU Council meetings,” he said.
“Not only have we decided to include them in the decision-making process and provide them with a voice, but they also bring fresh new ideas which is important for the evolution of any sport.
“We have not yet reached the full potential and believe that the involvement of the athletes is beneficial for the ISU on different levels. The athletes are at the heart of skating.”